Matt Gemmell

Making changes

6 min read1609 words

The first thing I ever wrote on a computer was code. The computer in question was a ZX Spectrum 48K, and I can’t remember what the program did – I was just painstakingly copying it from the pages of a magazine, without any clue how it worked. I didn’t really start to learn about programming until I was in high school, which was much later.

In the years between, I wrote stories – sometimes longhand, and sometimes on a sort of word processor that my mother was kind enough to buy for me. I had an inkjet printer and reams of budget-priced paper that smelled vaguely of wallpaper paste. I wrote hundreds of pages of fiction, printed it, and kept it in box files. I still have those stories.

By then, I was at high school. I had little idea what I wanted to do with my life, but some of my early ideas were lawyer, electronic engineer, and classicist. Those all fell by the wayside when I became really interested in programming. The fact that our school’s computer lab was full of Macs helped quite a bit, and I had wonderful teachers. I kept writing on the side too, but less often.

I’d already applied to and been accepted at university for an electronics engineering degree when I realised that programming interested me more. I re-applied during my sixth year of high school, was accepted again, and off I went. My degree is in Computing Science, and it’s been my career ever since.

My work has been focused more on the human side of software – user experience and interface design – but I’ve written a lot of code. I’m interested in technology, and the developer community has been good to me.

Have I been any good at it? That’s a difficult question. I’ve tried, at least.

Since I started working for myself seven years ago, I’ve been busy. I’ve released a lot of source code, and it’s been used in hundreds if not thousands of apps. My name pops up a lot in attributions and ‘About’ screens. I’ve made some apps of my own, and helped a lot of other people to make theirs. I’ve done a fair bit of work for Apple, even, and they’re one of my favourite companies.

I’ve spoken at conferences and workshops in a lot of different places, and met thousands of developers. I’ve written articles about software that you might even have read, whether they were here or in some magazine or other. I’ve had ten thousand discussions, often with a pint or a glass of whisky in my hand, about someone’s product and how to make it better.

Ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide what kind of contribution I’ve made; others will do that. I’ll accept your judgement. I’m just happy to be able to say that I’ve given it my best shot. If we crossed paths in that capacity, I truly hope it was a positive experience for you.

And I’ve loved pretty much every moment. There’s something amazing about taking an idea and turning it into a program or app that goes out into someone else’s hands, and helps them do something. It’s a privilege to have worked in the software industry.

But it’s time for a change.

I’ve felt it for a couple of years now. It probably started when I began writing professionally (or at least, for money, he said self-deprecatingly), and also making more time to read.

I’ve had the distinct privilege of knowing that my words here are being seen by you, dear reader. I don’t publish every day, and I certainly don’t publish unless I have something important to say. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have readers. I realised recently that it was actually the most important thing to me.

Software development is no longer where my heart is. I have no idea if I’m a good software developer, or if I’m a good writer, but I do know that I’ve been slowly coming to a couple of realisations over the past year. First and foremost, I care far more about interacting with people than machines. That wasn’t always true. And second, I think I can be a better writer than a software developer.

I’ve agonised over this. I’ve had long discussions with my ever-supportive wife. I’ve stood at a window and looked out into the small hours of the night, asking myself the same questions over and over. I’ve even thought about you, dear reader, whether you’re here via Twitter or this blog’s feed or somewhere else.

I’m scared, but being scared isn’t the same as being unsure. I was a programmer for a living, but for better or for worse, I’m meant to be a writer.

So I’m going to try this. Maybe it’s foolish, and from a commercial point of view it certainly looks that way, but I must try. As of this moment, I’m no longer developing software, either for myself or for others. I’m writing full-time.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a software developer – because I believe that’s still the majority of my readership. I’m being honest with you about this change that I’m making, partly because I owe it to you in exchange for reading my words, but mainly because I’ve learned that the best thing to do when you’re scared is to tell someone about it.

On a day-to-day basis, not a lot is going to change. This blog hasn’t been exclusively about tech for quite some time now, if it ever was. And it’s not going to exclude tech and software from now on – because I’m still genuinely interested in that industry. Many of my finest friendships have been made there. I’m still keeping up to date. I’m still annoyed at Adobe’s installers. I’m still counting down the days til the next keynote when I can find a reason to buy some new Apple kit. I’m still passionate about user-focused computing and how empowering it can be. I still care. My tweet stream is hardly going to change.

It’s just that, now, that stuff is my hobby. My job from now on is to write. To write for magazines (sometimes about tech, as now, and sometimes about other things). To write here on this blog, adding to the more than half a million words I’ve somehow already produced. And, yes, to write fiction – which has always been my first love. I actually already have a hundred thousand or so words of fiction out there in various dark corners of the internet, albeit not under my own name, and it seems to have been enjoyed, but my challenge now is putting my own name on a story. I’ll talk more about that at a later time, but it’s what I’ll be spending the majority of every week doing for the foreseeable future.

I know that this might be where a few of you feel we have to part company, and that’d be a truly sad thing. If you really think about it, I bet you’ll realise that whilst you might have initially come here for some source code or a particular factual article, you probably came back for the words.

Against all the advice for boosting page-views and amplifying social engagement, I refuse to stick to a single narrow topic, like tech (or like writing fiction). I just can’t do it, because – like you – I’m interested in so many damned other things. I’m a perpetual student of the human condition, and a deeply flawed (and often frightened) example of it. Talking about it is what gets me through. Isn’t it possible that that’s why you’re even reading this in the first place?

I hope so. And if so, then perhaps you’ll consider sticking around to see what this next phase of my career brings. It’s a big gamble, but I walked into my office last Monday morning for my first full week of exclusively writing, I opened the blinds, and I felt something I’ve only felt one other time in my life: this is right. The last time I had that certainty, my next words were “I do”, and my fiancée became my wife.

This is my dream. Just to do this thing that I’ve always done, putting words in order, keystroke by keystroke. I’m actively seeking opportunities to support myself with my writing (commissioning editors of magazines, do get in touch), and I’m looking forward to sharing a novel with you later this year. “Looking forward to” in the terrified sense, of course.

You can help, too. This is certainly the right time, because I’m taking a big risk – I won’t lie to you about that. I’ve had some sleepless nights and I’ll have a few more, but I feel alive.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a piece of my writing, or benefited from some of my open source code, or even just laughed at one of my tweets, I just want to let you know that you can provide a tiny bit of assistance by becoming a patron of my writing. The amount is up to you. If you have ever wanted to support what I do, dear reader, please consider doing so now.

This is a huge step for me, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride. I’ve been sensible for twenty years, and now I think it’s time to be true to myself. 2014 is going to be my year of the written word. I dearly hope it’ll be the first of many.

Here goes.